One Richmond neighborhood fights to stay tower-free. 

Cellular Growth

People who live in Oakwood say the neighborhood looks lovely in spring, hemmed with cornflower and daisies. Life is quiet, mostly, along bungalow-lined streets, where home security means backyard dogs and crime is as low as the rent. It is a place where wildflowers remind residents that living next to a landfill has its perks. It has a park, too, of sorts.

Once, the empty acres above the landfill were headquarters for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. The building and garage bays have long been boarded up, the property abandoned. Now the city-owned tract at the end of P Street in Church Hill is nothing but dead space.

But if Sprint PCS has its way the tract won't be empty for long. For months, the telecommunications company has been working with the city to erect a 125-foot cell-phone tower on the site. The company will lease the space from the city.

Residents of Oakwood say they learned of the proposal just weeks ago when City Councilwoman Delores McQuinn, 7th District, announced that on Jan. 22 a public hearing would be held to discuss the matter at Onslow Minnis Middle School.

Elizabeth Ihde, a Sprint spokeswoman, says citizens should have received at least two notices about the tower prior to this week's meeting. Moreover, Ihde says engineers conducted a "balloon test" so the public could see the height and exact location of the proposed tower. "Nobody came to the meetings," says Ihde. "There was never any concern expressed."

Still, Oakwood residents contend they weren't told of Sprint's plans. Many are angry. Some blame the city for failing to share information.

Now the group — which last week united as the Oakwood Neighborhood Association — has braced itself for what it fears could be an unfair fight, a fight many believed had already been won.

Six years ago Cellular One, backed by then-Mayor Leonidas Young, aimed to erect a cell-phone tower in nearly the same location. Citizens, concerned about health issues, obscured views and declining property values, rallied against the 200-foot structure. Then-City Manager Robert Bobb sided with the citizens and City Council voted down the project.

Richmond School Board member and Church Hill resident Reggie Malone says concerns about a tower are no different today. "They give off microwaves and radiation," he contends. "I can't understand why anyone would want to take the risk that it could be hazardous to humans. I'm opposed to it now as I was then." He insists there are many places where such towers, or "cell sites," can go without encroaching on peoples' homes. And aesthetically, he says, the giant poles are the pits: "They look like grotesque antennas."

But protests could prove futile. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eased competition among phone- and cable-providers and paved the way for more towers. Already, the Federal Communications Commission estimates nearly 75,000 cell sites with heights up to 200 feet, and sometimes higher, are scattered across the United States.

Many more are to come, according to the FCC. The 1996 act ensured that local zoning laws could not shut out companies. Under the law, no city or town can keep cell-phone companies from erecting sites within the range they're licensed to cover. But a provision does allow local governments to have some input over where, precisely, the towers will go and how they will look.

Last week, 20 Oakwood and Church Hill residents gathered at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, a stone's throw from where the tower could go. They plan to have a strategy in place for the public hearing this week.

"This is a hidden community, a secret Richmond treasure," Jennifer Nodine says of Oakwood. Nodine lives in the neighborhood and has helped lead the grass-roots crusade to thwart the tower. "Nobody knows we're back here in Church Hill. We don't want the tower. It's ugly."

Nodine and Malone say Councilwoman McQuinn consulted with Sprint representatives without notifying residents of any intent to construct a tower merely yards from their homes.

McQuinn did not return Style's repeated calls for comment.

"It is definitely not a sign of good faith for the community," Nodine says. "The city stands to make a fortune."

A fortune? Larry McDonnell, a spokesman for Sprint PCS, says he can't discuss "proprietary terms" but acknowledges that if the local government owns the land Sprint would pay the city to lease the site for anywhere from five to 10 years. McDonnell adamantly rebuts charges of health risks associated with radio waves from cell sites. "This technology is 100 percent safe," he insists.

McDonnell says Church Hill is a growing area for Sprint, and in order to compete with other cellular companies, it must extend its service. "There are customers in Church Hill right now and they don't have coverage," he says. "This is top-priority and it's going to require some antennas."

McDonnell says Sprint does its best to balance two opposing desires: Cellular customers want clearer calls, while residents want unobstructed views. There are options, he points out, like colocation — sharing a site with a competitor — and towers that resemble a simple flagpole. The company's aim is to show residents there are no health risks and convince them that the value of phone service "outweighs the view shed."

But in the end, McDonnell says, cell-phone towers are inevitable. "We'll listen to concerns, but ultimately we have a responsibility to fill in gaps and build out," he says. "It's only going to benefit them as potential customers."

Emma Norris has no plans to become one of those. She has no use, she says, for cellular service. Norris has lived 26 years in Oakwood without a tower looming over her house, and she doesn't think her view of the sky should suffer now. The tangled tendrils hanging from telephone poles are ugly enough.

"This is a really nice neighborhood and pretty in the spring," says Norris. "It's peaceful here and quiet. We don't want the tower here and that should be enough."


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